In a paper published in 2013 just after Xi Jinping took power, Hong Kong media tycoon Yu Pun-hoi wrote optimistically about how the new Chinese president needed to take an “unambiguous stand against dictatorship” and ensure “free speech”.
Eight years later, things could not have panned out more differently, especially for Hong Kong’s once vibrant media. Yu’s main rival, pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, is behind bars and his popular Apple Daily tabloid newspaper has been shuttered. Both were high-profile targets of Xi’s crackdown on civil freedoms after anti-government protests shook Hong Kong in 2019.
Yu, 63, a successful entrepreneur skilled at walking the line between being a pro-Beijing loyalist and occasionally criticising the local Hong Kong government, has suddenly found himself uncomfortably close to the firing line. With the removal of Apple Daily, his irreverent website HK01, with its heady mix of crime and entertainment, is now the city’s most popular news portal.
“The style he presents as a media owner is not like Jimmy Lai,” said Grace Leung, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese university of Hong Kong. “He is more like the traditional Chinese [elite businessman] . . . HK01 has tried to position itself as pro-China but at least appear to be a bit more neutral.”
Hong Kong’s aggressive media was traditionally seen as part of its appeal as an international financial centre, able to hold the government to account in a way that was unimaginable in mainland China.
But since the protests and the introduction of a national security law last year, the government has clamped down on the press. Apart from arresting Lai, it has targeted public broadcaster RTHK, prominent journalists have fled the city, citing “white terror”, although the government argues press freedoms have been preserved. White terror refers to the decades of authoritarian rule in Taiwan when hundreds of dissidents were jailed. Hong Kong protesters have used the term to characterise their fear of retribution after the 2019 protests.
From its founding in 2016, HK01 has attracted readers by mixing salacious celebrity gossip and criticism of the local Hong Kong government with support for Beijing’s rule, reflecting the leanings of the coterie of independent-minded but ultimately pro-China businesspeople who have long ruled the city.
But in the wake of the security law, Beijing is listening less to the city’s traditional elites, partly blaming them for the protests. In this new Hong Kong, analysts wonder if HK01 can continue with its “loyalist criticism”, or if the hint of dissent that helped drive readership will be stamped out.
Yu burst on to the Hong Kong media scene in the early 1990s at age 33, taking over Chinese language newspaper Mingpao after a failed bid from Rupert Murdoch. He sold the paper after a scandal in which the Hong Kong media revealed he had been jailed for a few months in his youth when studying in Canada.
He developed property, cinema and IT businesses in mainland China before launching HK01’s website in 2016. The outlet, which unleashed some of Hong Kong’s best journalists on sensitive topics and on the city’s most powerful people, developed a reputation for scoops.
“We knew that our boss had his personal opinions but he seldom interrupted our coverage,” one employee told the Financial Times, describing this period as HK01’s “golden time”.
Yu’s interest in the media also arose from a desire to influence public policy, analysts said. He is the chair of academic institutes at China’s Tsinghua and Peking universities and acquired Duowei in 2009, one of the biggest political news websites targeting the Chinese diaspora.
“Yu does not totally listen to the central government . . . He is a businessman with his own ideas on politics, he’s not totally red,” another former editorial staffer said.
Yu first revealed his dual approach to Beijing while at Mingpao, when one of his reporters was arrested in China in 1993. While his paper lobbied for the journalist’s release, Yu apologised to Chinese authorities and said he had reason to believe the journalist was guilty.
But the big test for Yu’s approach came in 2019 during the anti-government protests. Yu, who is now also chief editor of HK01, editorialised against violence by the pro-democracy camp, upsetting frontline reporters who complained that democrats were refusing to be interviewed by them.
“The top management is very pro-establishment but some reporters and editors are very pro-democrat, so there is always a tension there,” said Rose Luqiu, a former Chinese journalist now at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The introduction of the national security law has led to even tighter editorial control than the pressures that appeared during the protests, two employees said. “Sometimes our editors will ban our stories. Editors say it’s too sensitive . . . change the angle,” a current staff member said.
“There is hardly any criticism of the central government,” another added.
A HK01 senior editor rejected the criticism and said the outlet “never hesitated to dive right into” sensitive topics or cover politics before or after the introduction of the security law.
One person close to the company said it also did not want to be defined by political news. The business model has evolved in recent years to include ecommerce. “HK01 is not only a media outlet, but an internet company,” the editor said.
But for Yu and HK01, walking the tightrope of “loyal criticism” promises to only get tougher. If its news becomes perceived as too pro-Beijing in a city whose residents tend to lean away from the government, HK01 will lose readers.
“And then the advertisers will also abandon you,” Luqiu said.
But becoming too pro-democrat will attract the opprobrium of nationalists. In recent months, the website has been targeted by Stanley Ng, a pro-Beijing politician who depicted HK01 as belonging in the same “rubbish bin” as Apple Daily.
Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong